In Exodus 15:20-21, “the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand” and led all the women in dancing and singing on the occasion of the Israelites’ victory over the forces of Pharaoh thanks to God’s assistance. There are reasons to associate the figure of Miriam with the poetic text attributed to Moses in 15:1-18 as well.
In 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Hannah prays “My heart exults in the Holy God; my strength is exalted in my god. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” She goes on to exult in victory, emphasizing reversal of fortune (“The Holy God makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor . . .”) and God’s power.
In Judges ch. 5, Deborah and Barak sing at length in praise of God, and God’s assistants, including the stars (5:20) and rivers (5:21), and Jael, “wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed” and slayer of the enemy commander Sisera (5:24-27).
In Judith, Judith herself “began this thanksgiving before all Israel, and all the people loudly sang this song of praise.” (15:14) Judith’s song of thanksgiving (16:1-17) is a song of military victory over Holofernes, who “boasted that he would burn my territory . . .” and commit a depressingly familiar list of depredations, “but the Holy God Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman” (15:4-5). As with Hannah’s song, reversal of fortune is a prominent theme: “Then my oppressed people shouted; my weak people cried out, and the enemy trembled; they lifted up their voices and the enemy were turned back.” (15:11)
In Luke 2:46-55, Mary thanks God “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed:” – like Deborah, Jael, and Judith. Mary’s song also emphasizes God’s victory over enemies and the reversal associated with it (“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . . he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” 2:51, 53). She carries on a tradition that begins with the earlier Miriam in Exodus, of women thanking God for victory on behalf of the oppressed in what are evidently desperately one-sided battles.
On this Thanksgiving Day, may we honor our foremothers.